Linguistic intuition

There’s a very interesting discussion taking place on Scott Thornbury’s blog right now, sparked by his brilliant “feel” post. The central question he attempts to address is one which has been incessantly nagging at me for at least fifteen years:

What’s the role of linguistic intuition in language learning?

The feel vs. know / feel = know / feel + know debate is far, far from settled in ELT and it connects interestingly with an issue I have addressed here on a number of occasions: the tension between knowing that (declarative knowledge) and knowing how (procedural knowledge) and the extent to which there’ s some interface between them.

So, as I said, this debate is not settled yet (will it ever be?), but these are some of the issues to bear in mind when discussing linguistic intuition in language learning:

1.  The “structure of the day”

In my experience, it seems that certain structures / lexical areas are more “intuition-friendly” than others. Three examples off the top of my head:

a. gradable/non-gradable adjectives (very hot, absolutely boiling)

I’ve rarely had to “teach” these formally. In my experience, students somehow always “knew” that we “very boiling” sounds wrong, drawing on some sort of abstract linguistic intuition.

b. subject / object questions (who did you see? / who saw you?)

Most of my students seem to have relatively little trouble with the second type. Subject questions, on the other hand, are still a major stumbling block and it takes years of instruction and exposure for students to form them correctly. It would seem that linguistic intuition works differently for different structures.

c. use /omission of the definite article

This is an example of a language area students might take a while to know intuitively, but that, in my experience, is best learned naturally, via exposure and some degree of awareness raising. The only uses of the definite article, which, I believe, lend themselves well to formal teaching are niceties such as “The Japanese are known for…” or “The rich ought to give to the poor”.

2. The learners’ mother tongue and intuition in language (Can of worms alert!)

In my experience, certain (but not all) structures that are very similar to Portuguese require far less explaining and analysis than others. Case in point: the difference between simple present / present continuous (which, for some reason, has become a staple textbook item since Headway came along). It would appear that students’ L1 background also shapes their linguistic intuition.

Whenever I’ve had to contrast these tenses, students somehow already knew the difference intuitively. The same applies to simple past vs. past progressive, which tends to create very few problems with meaning. What students do experience is trouble choosing the right verbs (“Teacher, how do I say levando?”) and getting the form right. It’s been years since I got “What were they doing?” spontaneously from a pre-intermediate student. But the differences in meaning and use seem to be already “there” for some reason (possibly linguistic intuition) and, by asking Brazilian students to contrast, say, “I went” and “I was going”, most international, multilingual textbooks end up creating a problem that wasn’t really there in the first place. But I digress.

3. The recognition/production conundrum

Still on the present simple… ask a Brazilian low intermediate student to rate a series of sentences for correctness and he/she will probably be able to spot most of the missing third person Ss drawing on linguistic intuition – unless there’s an adverb between subject and verb, somehow breaking the “musicality” of the sentence. Now, despite the feel/awareness, all this intuition is unlikely to cross over into spontaneous production consistently, I think – not until at least high intermediate level, anyway.

So maybe “recognition feel” and “production feel” ought to be treated separately and, as Scott suggests, an interesting research question would be to investigate the interface between the two.

4. The lexical items within the structure.

This is something that’s always intrigued me. When teaching/eliciting the comparatives, for example, some students will intuitively know “cheap/cheaper, old/older, young/younger.” However, new/newer, for example, will have them frowning because it “sounds odd”, they say. The same applies to play/plays, work/works, like/likes, see/?

Since there’s nothing intrinsically odd about “newer” or “sees” could it be that it’s all due to lack of exposure (we do hear “older/younger” and “likes/plays” far more often “newer” or “sees”)? Could it be than when assessing the “correctness” of a sentences, students are drawing on their linguistic intuition far less often than we may assume? Or could it be that there are certain phonological idiosyncrasies that render certain words more/less “learnable”? Refer to Scott’s answer to my comments for his take on what these idiosyncrasies could be.

5. Age and learning style

Could it be that older teens perhaps have keener linguistic intuition than adults? That field-dependent students form better overall intuitions than more analytical students?

Lots of questions, still relatively few answers.

Thanks for reading.

2 thoughts on “Linguistic intuition”

  1. I’m glad you are back, Luiz. This question is indeed interesting and the point that really strikes me is the areas in which explaining grammar confuses studnets more than it helps them (like the present simpleXcontinuous example). How do you suggest a teacher gets around that when he/she is supposed to ‘teach the book’?

    Happy Holidays!

    1. Luiz Otávio says:

      Most teachers have to “teach the book” as you said and, thank God, most good books do more good than harm.
      I think what you can do in these cases is use a deep-end approach (often referred to as T-T-T: test then teach) with your students. This entails setting some sort of context / situation which somehow elicits the use of the “structure of the day” and shows you how much students already know. Then, you can take it from there and sort of skip the language analysis/presentation bit.
      The problem is that, sometimes, it’s the practice activities that will confuse students and create problems that were not there in the first place. Then, things get trickier. One possible solution is to change the focal point of the activity and somehow divert students’ attention towards something else. Once I was teaching the past/past continuous and the practice activities were making students slightly confused and prompting them to make mistakes they would have never made in the first place. You know what I did? I started reading the answers myself and asked them to listen carefully to my pronunciation of “was/were” and decide whether I was using a strong or weak form (schwa), which in a way saved what was left of my lesson.
      So, really, different language areas will require different “solutions”, depending on the group and on the book you happen to be teaching with as well. Not very helpful, but I guess it’s the best I can give you right now.

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